Icelandic nature can be very dangerous, even deadly. Prevent accidents by reading about Iceland's most dangerous aspects and be informed about all the main dangers in Iceland and how to manage them on your trip.
Sadly, a number of tourists have died in Iceland due to the extreme contrasts in the weather and nature.
Many instances could've been prevented if people had been more aware of their location and the possible dangers that the Icelandic nature can hold.
The country is often called 'the land of ice and fire', and that name should not be taken lightly.
In light of recent fatal accidents taking place at one of Iceland's most popular tourist destinations, Reynisfjara beach, we decided to pile together Iceland's main dangers both tourists and those living in Iceland should remain aware of.
We want to help make your trip to Iceland a wonderful safe adventure. We hope by Informing you of the main dangers you could encounter in Iceland, a lot of the dangers inherent to Iceland can be avoided and accidents mitigated.
Before travelling in Iceland, make sure you read up on how to drive in Iceland safely and inform yourself about the Icelandic search and rescue teams.
Make sure you leave your travel plan with the search and rescue teams and avoid making preventable mistakes, so you don't need to waste their valuable time.
We want our travellers to travel safely and go back in one piece!
A tourist in danger at Reynisfjara beach. Picture by Ulrich Pittroff.
Some of Iceland's beaches are incredibly popular tourist destinations, especially the black Reynisfjara beach on the south coast of Iceland.
Millions of people have visited this stunning area, where you can admire the pitch black sand, the linear basalt columns and last but not least, the impressive waves of the North Atlantic sea.
These waves, however, are extremely unpredictable. They can be very high and large, and the undercurrent in the ice-cold sea is very strong.
Sneaker waves can also occur when a single wave is much larger than the other ones, sneaking up far onto the beach.
There are many big rocks in the area, that have sharp edges where the waves crash.
Visually the waves look spectacular, so perhaps it comes as no surprise that tourists (and locals) can spend hours watching them and taking pictures and videos.
The danger lies in getting too close to the waves. Even if it's a nice and calm day and you feel like you're at a safe distance, a big wave can come and sweep you out to sea.
Someone gets caught by the waves almost every day. Whereas most people just get slightly wet clothes or shoes, some get their camera equipment ruined (which is quite common) and tragically, there have been a few tourist deaths in Iceland as a result.
In February 2016 a 40-year-old Chinese man was standing atop this middle rock on the above picture when a sudden wave took him out to sea where he drowned. His wife and two children were with him but unable to do anything to save him.
In 2007 a 75-year-old woman from the USA got caught by a wave and drowned. Three people jumped in to try to save her but couldn't reach her and put themselves in great danger at the same time.
The most recent tragedy took place in January 2017, when a German woman in her fifties was caught by a wave and washed ashore a couple of hours later.
She was travelling with her husband and two children. Her son (who was in his thirties) also got caught by a wave but managed to get back to the shores alive.
In 2013 a four-year-old girl ran straight towards the waves, but fortunately, a guide reacted quickly and managed to run after her and swiftly pick her up before the next wave.
All of these incidents took place on nice and sunny clear days, so you can imagine what the waves can be like in the middle of winter when it can be stormy and snowing.
Djúpalónssandur. Picture by Vísir.
Take extra care when you go to Reynisfjara - as well as any other beach in Iceland.
Another beautiful and popular black beach is Djúpalónssandur on Snæfellsnes, where people have gotten caught in the surf, although no-one has died there, so far.
Make sure, under all circumstances, not to turn your back to the sea or get lost in taking that selfie. The waves are much stronger than you'd expect. Heeding these warnings can be the difference between life and death.
Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon is one of Iceland's most popular destinations, and it's not hard to understand why.
Impressive icebergs float around in a large lagoon, that's nestled by Europe's largest glacier, Vatnajökull.
In wintertime, you can catch the Northern Lights dancing overhead, sometimes reflected in the lagoon and the ice in it. This is a photographer's heaven and provides an array of stunning aurora photos.
When you go to the lagoon, you will see signs that forbid people to walk on the ice in the lagoon.
There are normally a number of tour guides in the area, all of whom will tell people not to walk on the ice.
Nevertheless, there always seem to be a few people that either are oblivious to the danger or ignore it and walk on the ice (or even swim in the lagoon!) to a floating iceberg. This is often done for that ever-so-precious selfie.
Tourists in danger by Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. Picture by Gylfi Blöndal.
Although the ice may be connected to land when you arrive and looks safe to walk on, it can easily break off from the land.
If you find yourself stranded on a block of ice in the lagoon, you're in serious danger since the ice can tip over at any moment. This might not only mean you'd fall into the ice-cold water, but you might even get trapped underneath the iceberg itself.
The water is so cold that people can only stay in it for a few minutes before they'd get hypothermia and die. The current in the calm lagoon is also very strong and can easily carry people out to sea.
Again, people tend to misjudge how stable and safe the natural attractions in Iceland are, that can lead to fatal incidents.
There's a saying in Iceland that goes "If you don't like the weather, wait 5 minutes".
The weather can suddenly change and is constantly changing. It can change dramatically in the same place in a matter of seconds, and also change drastically from one location to the next.
With the vast scenery, you can literally see where there's rain on your right-hand side, but the sun on the left one.
The weather can be dramatically different depending on your location in the country (it can be sunny and nice in Reykjavík where you start your day but a snowstorm in the highlands).
This means you can drive through rain, snow, sun, wind and fog, all within the same hour or even in a matter of a few minutes. And you should never underestimate the windchill factor in Iceland.
This also means that you can hike through the same conditions, so ensure you pack the correct essentials for all seasons.
Whereas snowstorms tend to mainly take place in wintertime, they have been known to take place in the middle of summer as well.
Snowstorms are more likely to take place in the highlands, where you won't find much shelter or traffic.
Hiking in Iceland is a wonderful way to explore the country, and very popular.
When you go hiking in Iceland however, you need to be prepared for any type of weather, even in the summertime.
Bring layers of wool and/or fleece and avoid wearing cotton or denim, as they get cold and lose their insulation capabilities when wet.
The most popular hiking route in Iceland is 'Laugavegurinn', named after Reykjavík's busiest shopping street. Even though it's a busy route, you can still feel like you’re the only one on it.
In 2004, on a clear summer's day at the end of June, a 25-year-old Israeli man started the hike from Landmannalaugar.
He was poorly dressed, in sneakers, light trousers and a light jacket. The staff at Landmannalaugar warned him not to go hiking in this outfit since the route crosses a glacier and he might get cold, but he went nonetheless.
Four hours later he called the Icelandic Search and Rescue teams as he was completely lost in a thick fog, and getting very cold.
A team of about 70 people went looking for him, but he was found dead, only 1 km away from a hut where he could've found shelter from the cold.
This is just one example of someone that was killed in Iceland due to insufficient clothing. Many more have frozen to death in the cold and unpredictable weather.
Never underestimate how quickly the weather can turn, and always make sure that you're prepared for any kind of weather.
Iceland’s winds can be unpredictable, volatile and change very regularly. It’s not unusual in Iceland to have very calm winds one day to cyclonic winds the next.
The Icelandic met office are very quick to monitor changing conditions (including wind, rain, snow, earthquakes, eruptions and avalanches) and issue alerts when required.
The alerts that are issued in 3 warning levels: yellow, orange and red. The warnings not only look at climatological thresholds but also societal and meteorological circumstances too to ensure people’s safety is the main focus for the alerts.
Whether you’re exploring Iceland on a guided tour or on a self drive, it’s essential you keep up to date daily with the latest wind & weather forecasts. By being aware you can avoid travelling in high-risk winds, which have in the past, led to Iceland tourist deaths.
Tour providers should always be aware of any conditions that could affect your safety and cancel or reschedule tours that could put you at risk. However, it is always best to keep yourself aware of changing conditions to ensure your safety.
Usually, tour providers will either offer a different activity, a refund or reschedule your tour to another day or time. This is common in Iceland and tour providers are well drilled in managing customers safety in Iceland’s ever-changing conditions.
Unfortunately, there have been cases recently where tourists have not heeded the warning of a red alert, delivering cyclonic winds to west Iceland and the south coast.
Sadly, this resulted in the death of two Chinese nationals in their twenties near the Solheimasandur DC3 plane wreck.
The best rule of thumb is not to travel if you feel unsafe in Iceland’s winds. If you are driving yourself you should always slow down to a speed that you’re comfortable with or simply don’t travel.
Always make sure to keep up to date with Iceland’s weather and road conditions on a daily basis and heed the warnings of locals who will have experienced these conditions many times before.
We've listed the main dangers in Iceland. Whatever activity you plan on doing, be sure to keep all necessary information of the location before doing anything rash.
Also, be sure to look out for information signs in the areas where you are travelling. These will alert you to possible dangers both on the road and at various attractions around the country.
Other dangers include falling into cracks on glaciers, getting stuck inside unstable ice caves or burning yourself on hot springs.
Remember to never go hiking on a glacier or enter an ice cave unless you're with someone that knows the area and the landscape extremely well. Only join these activities under the supervision of professional guides.
Be careful around hot springs and don't step too close; you may not fall in but the surrounding mud can be just as hot and your feet could sink into it.
Take note that off-road and off-track driving is illegal in Iceland. The tracks can sometimes be hard to see but are still regarded as roads.
If you can't see a clear track, then you're driving off-road and you're both damaging the nature, and possibly putting yourself at great risk.
Driving in the highlands requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Do not attempt to drive in the highlands on a low car that doesn't have a 4 wheel drive.
Your car will most likely get stuck, and you may have to wait a long time before receiving help (as well as pay for the damages to the car).
Be careful when driving in Iceland, there are many single-lane bridges and if you have an accident somewhere or get stuck, then there tend to be long distances to the nearest gas station, police station or hospital.
Some people are concerned about dangerous animals in Iceland. You have nothing to fear from the Icelandic animals, except perhaps some birds attacking you when they're protecting their eggs.
Only be careful not to hit any birds, sheep, cows or reindeer whilst driving, you may wound or kill the animals, and the crash can also harm yourself.
Although Iceland is a volcanic island, you don't need to fear earthquakes or volcanic eruptions.
No-one has ever been seriously harmed directly due to an earthquake nor a volcanic eruption in Iceland. Find out more about volcanoes in Iceland here.
There are many dangers in Iceland, but the biggest and most important one is failing to be aware.
It’s vital you prepare for your trip with safety in mind first. Make sure when travelling around that you heed our advice in this article whilst also staying on top of the latest weather and road conditions daily.
Make sure you come dressed for the terrain, ensuring you are warm and as dry as possible in any eventuality and don’t ignore local advice or warning signs under any circumstances.
Whether you’re travelling the island on a self drive, planning to join guided tours or just taking a city break to our wonderful capital, make sure to respect the rules and take our safety advice. We hope you have a wonderful stay in Iceland, making memories, enjoying once in a lifetime experiences and staying safe! We’d love to answer any questions or hear from any experiences you’ve had in the comments below.